Then, in one singular moment, the confusion, the collage of faces, the alphabet soup, all of that disappeared. Later in the evening, I attempted to recall, in my journal, the afternoon and that moment:
10/26/92 Later, at Episcopal Justice Group Meeting in PAP (abbreviation for Port-au-Prince)
“Plans change—times are gelatinous—we operate on H(aitian) T(ime) which means give or take an hour or so—all pretty amorphous—no problem, that seems to be the crux of every statement made to us so far. It is the one phrase that everyone here seems to know no matter what language is spoken—and there are plenty of languages to go around: Creole, French, English, and some Spanish. I speak Russian and German—not all that useful. I actually found myself responding in Italian this afternoon, and I don’t speak Italian. But, what we all manage to do, and with great proficiency, is sweat.
“The temperature is only five degrees higher than in South Florida but the humidity must ride at close to one hundred percent all the time. All the people we see, including us, look as if they should be in some old Bogart film, constantly mopping their brows. We sit in this meeting, listening.
“Two Haitians sit near us, huddled together waiting for a Creole translation. Both are victims of the Coup—one, a woman, in exile from her home in Gonaives, moves from house to house, displaced and in hiding—her husband in one place—her children, another. Everyone is willing to explain, give examples but the thing is unbelievably complicated. Chaos breeding more chaos. These people hope—and they hope with intensity if they hope in us—and it indicates how powerless they are if they hope in the minuscule power we have.
“I wore a scapular given to me to wear by a friend in Florida. I take it from around my neck and give it to the Lady-in-Hiding that I met at the meeting. She certainly needs it more than I do. Parting, we often say, Bon Courage. Here, it amounts to a blessing.”
All these years later, I now know that up until that moment, it had all been theory—theory and second hand information even though it was being told in the place where it was happening even as we spoke. But, with this woman, a woman who had a husband and a child just as I did, the experience became personal, and sympathy suddenly became empathy. The only way I could express that connection was to give her the scapular.
Four years later, on one of the trips where I had traveled alone to Haiti because it was too dangerous to take a delegation with me, Necker Dessables asked me to meet him down on the square for lunch. It was a rather strange request. Even though I now met with Necker every time I came to Haiti, it was always at his office as the director of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Haitian Conference of Bishops.
I arrived at the restaurant and saw Necker seated toward the back. He was with another person, a woman. After I was seated and introductions were made, the woman reached inside her blouse and pulled out the scapular which hung around her neck. “Do you remember?” she softly asked me. It was one of the exceptional moments of my years in Haiti. She had survived. Her family, though still separated, had survived. And, she remembered me. I had never forgotten her, either.
She had become a particular personification of the suffering of Haiti. And, after all those years, Necker had brought us back together. It is impossible to express in words what that moment meant.
Then, about five years ago in an Honors class at the College, I retold this story. Honors classes are small and this one, Honors Knowledge Through the Ages, had just twelve students—one of whom was a young Haitian man. As I finished the story, I noticed he had a strange look on his face and I inquired about his reaction. Instead of answering, he asked me several questions. When I had replied, he said quietly: “That was my mother.” All those years and miles and the almost infinite unlikelihood of such a connection . . . and yet there it was—I was teaching the son of the woman who had first taught me.
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